As early as the 1500s, the Ottoman Turks and the Russian Empire have had a serpentine trajectory in their bilateral relations, due mostly to a conflict over geopolitical issues. After the abolition of these two ancient empires during the First World War, the Bolsheviks supplied and backed the Kemalist Turkish nationalist regime in its independence struggle and against the domestic Ottoman Caliphate supporters.
The start of the Cold War got the two countries back to a confrontation as two major regional adversaries as Turkey has become a part of NATO. Therefore, Turkey was used as a bulwark against the Soviet Unions’ expansionism in that region. With the diminishing Russian threat to Turkey in the early 1990s, Turkey and Russia confronted each other as adversaries in strategic zones like the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Balkans.
Russia was resolutely not to let the former Soviet Republics be off its own vital domain of influence, following a policy named “Eurasianism”, whereby Russia abundantly and clearly stated that its interests in the former Soviet Republics must be respected by other actors. This was in conjunction with Turkey’s eagerness about bringing those nations under its political influence and leadership. The post-Cold War era has witnessed new grounds for Turkey and Russia to reinforce their bilateral relations in terms of mutual economic interests.
Mutual Economic Interests
The new cooperation has institutionally been in the form of the High-Level Cooperation Council and a Joint Economic Commission. In reality, the Russo-Turkish rapprochement of the 2000s was a new scope of multi-dimensional foreign policy for Turkey and Russia, and doesn’t entail any kind of political union.
The essence of Turkey’s cooperation with Russia is categorically based on advancing mutual national economic interests, rather than choosing a side. It could be said that it’s not a turning to the East at the expense of the West, but merely the pursuit of diverse foreign policy options since Turkey has always considered Russia as a counterweight to the West.
The trade volume between Turkey and Russia has massively increased. Turkey sells agricultural and industrial products to Russia, in exchange for buying 60% of its natural gas from Russia. Moreover, Russia is constructing Turkey’s first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu, which is expected to be functioning in 2023. There are approximately 4.5m Russian tourists visiting Turkey every year. The relation is about mutual economic cooperation, besides being regional competition in terms of markets, investment volume, and strategic competition of possession of reserves of natural gas and oil in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Turkey is a major buyer of Russian natural gas. Russia and Turkey are linked by the Blue Stream gas pipeline. Furthermore, the TurkStream gas pipeline construction is underway, as Turkey’s demand and consumption of blue fuel increased at a fast pace, which brought about a ramp-up in Russia’s gas exports. TurkStream aims to enhance the gas supply to Turkey, as well as southern and southeastern Europe. So, Turkey is a vital gas transit-intermediary for Russia to reach southern and southeastern Europe, which gives the nation significant leverage in its Russian dealings.
Turkey-Russia Defence Cooperation
Turkey’s purchase of the Russia’s S-400 air defence system in September 2017 marked a new step towards a broader scope of bilateral relations and cooperation between the two countries. The deal is considered Turkey’s first major weapons purchase from Russia.
Arguably, it’s a normal sequence of events, as the deal came as a consequence of a crisis in relations with several Western countries. Recently, Turkey’s relations with NATO countries have deteriorated. For instance, Washington’s support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria has infuriated Ankara.
Turkey considers the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has declared an armed struggle with the Turkish state since 1984, aiming at achieving an independent Kurdish state and then calling for Kurdish autonomy. For Turkey, it’s a matter of major national security issue.
Furthermore, there is a wave of European disparagement against Erdogan’s regime. Besides the diplomatic crises between Ankara and several NATO countries, Germany has announced that it would impose some restrictions on some arms sales to Turkey, as the diplomatic crises unfolded on the background of the Turkish security crackdown after the failed 2016 military coup. In March 2017, Germany refused to export some military equipment, on grounds that the weapons might be used to repress the public.
After Turkey purchased the Russia’s S-400 air defence system, President Erdogan said: “They’ve gone crazy just because we made a deal on the S-400. What were we supposed to do, wait for you forever?”. Erdogan argued that Turkey was allowed to make military purchases based on its defence needs, irrespective of having the second largest standing army in NATO after the United States.
It can be argued that the essential characteristic of Turkish-Russian relations is that both sides consider each other as an instrument to exploit in their relations with the West. In essence, the deal is beyond just buying weapons. The fundamental purpose of such a deal would be protecting the Turkish sovereignty and territorial integrity from air and missile threats. At the same time, the deal paves the way for broader Russo-Turkish defence cooperation.
The Escalation of Disagreements
In spite of Turkey’s endeavours to develop its relationship with Russia, there are some disagreements on several issues. Russian annexation of Crimea is one of the most serious disagreements for Turkey. Ankara recognised Russia’s annexation and the referendum as illegitimate. But unlike its conventional allies, the United States and the EU, Turkey has not imposed any kind of sanctions against Russia.
Over and above Turkey voted against Crimean cessation to Russia in the UN General Assembly Resolution. In February 2017, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated that Turkey would not accept the annexation of the Crimea “under any circumstances”.
In 2015, however, fifteen years of progress in bilateral relations were nearly erased in 20 seconds when Turkey downed a Russian SU-24 fighter-bomber. The rhetorical escalation was followed by a series of rapid and tough economic measures against Turkish companies and exports. Yet Moscow did not threaten to decrease the amount of gas it exports to Turkey nor did it exploit Turkey’s dependence on Russia for almost 60% of its gas consumption as a threat. However, Moscow insisted that Ankara was to take responsibility for the incident and pay indemnities.
Tactical Cooperation and Strategic Disagreement in Syria
Since then, Ankara and Moscow have patched up the breakdown in their relationship but tensions are ramping up once more. Syria has always been the most important disagreement between Putin and Erdoğan, and the nation has long been a priority for Russia in the Middle East.
Moscow has managed to keep a firm hand on its naval supply base at Tartus, which was established during the 1970s. For Russia, Syria was considered the last viable ally in the Middle East and its gateway to the warm water port. It is also a major market for Russian trade and economic cooperation, and a major importer of Russian weapons.
The Kremlin has failed to take control of the course of events in Libya since 2011, and thus Russia’s global role and influence in the Arab world was undermined. Putin’s interference in Syria was a way to show Russia’s influence in the Middle East. Therefore, Moscow can leverage its influence in Syria as a bargaining trump in international affairs.
On the other hand, Syria’s strategic importance for Turkey is above all based on the extended border between the two countries. Consequently, Syria’s impacts domestic Turkish political dynamics, especially with the escalating danger of Islamic State (ISIS) and the emergence of armed Syrian Kurdish groups that took control of a large area of land. Furthermore, Syria’s Kurds represent a threat to Turkey, and Ankara’s major goal has been to guarantee that a territorially Kurdish contiguous area wouldn’t be established on the Turkish border.
Economically, Syria is a substantial economic corridor for Turkey into the Arab world, in conjunction with Turkey’s regional policy which pursuing an influence expansion throughout the region by harness economic, political and cultural instruments. This could be seen in the context of the Turkish neo-imperialist state projects, which has manifestly been an aspect of Turkish new foreign policy conduct.
In spite of the improving bilateral relations, the Syrian conflict encompasses several points of disagreement between Turkey and Russia. The focal points of disagreement include the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, opposition to Kurdish groups, and the American role in the Syrian predicament.
Russia has provided absolute political, military, and economic support to al-Assad since the beginning of his civil war. On the other hand, Turkey calls for al-Assad to be ousted and backs the political and military Syrian opposition groups. The emergence of the Free Syrian Army was under the supervision of the Turkish intelligence. Moscow recognises and negotiates with armed factions, including the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria (PYD), which are considered terrorist organisations by Ankara.
However, Russia showed less interest in backing these groups after its relations with Turkey improved. The Turkish-Russian coordination against the Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is one of the points at which Turkey and Russia converge. Both countries take into account their joint roles in finding a resolution to the Syrian crisis. But it remains a matter of fact that Russia has been an opponent to Turkey’s strategy in Syria, and the Russian existence is hindering Turkey from accomplishing its own strategy in Syria.
New Russian-Turkish Rapprochement
The current Russo- Turkish rapprochement is fundamentally based on pragmatic economic calculations and furthering mutual national interest. After Turkish-Russian rapprochement, Ankara has been more vocal in its criticism about the US arming of the PKK and its affiliates in Syria. Therefore, Turkish decision-makers realized that they need that rapprochement with Russia as leverage to push the US to change its stance toward the People’s Protection Units in Syria.
That rapprochement resulted from Turkey and Russia’s realisation of the West’s refusal to give them a seat at the table. With improving bilateral relations, both countries boost each other positions in the Middle East. Instead of being incompatible geopolitical adversaries, they are coming to understand the strategic significance of rapprochement, which enables them to become allies rather than mere competitors.